The nightmare of survivors of Volhynia massacre
Stories told by the Poles who survived the genocide in Volhynia, belong to the most shocking accounts of that period
In the first farmstead we made a shocking discovery. A several years old boy was impaled on a sharp pole at the gate. An inscription made on the fence read: „Litak Sikorskoho” [Sikorski’s airplane]. In front of the entrance to the building we found corpses of men and two women brutally chopped with an axe.
Three of my children: Stanisława, Janek and Leon, were killed by Ukrainians murderers. I took my youngest son in my arms and ran out of the barn. I ran and ran. I heard a bang and at the same time a terrible cry of my child Józio. I fell down, holding the kid in my arms. Harsh pain penetrated my left forearm and blood was trickling from the wound. The dumdum bullet went through the muscle and the bone of my left arm. I wasn’t aware if my son Józio was alive or not. I was very weak from the loss of blood.
I don’t recall how long I lay there unconscious. I soon felt thirsty so I began to crawl. I was lucky as, suddenly, my husband’s brother Alexander Soroka who miraculously survived appeared in front of me. He brought me water, which quenched my thirst. I decided to stagger to my house to die there. I lost everything. Those whom I loved the most, were gone forever. I wanted to join them there, in the other world, in God’s heaven …
In one of the villages near the Derażne, a small child, disembowelled, was found in a hut after the pogrom. Its entrails were stretched on the wall in an irregular manner, and there was a piece of paper with the note: “Poland from sea to sea” hung on one of the nails.
Several banderivtsi ran to my mother and one of them hit her in the head with an axe. My mom fell and dropped my brother Tadzio to the floor, while I was screaming in terror. Mom, crawling, pulled the crying and bleeding Tadzio to herself and started to breastfeed him. Soon, the banderivtsi approached my mother again and cut her throat. She was still alive when they stripped her naked and cut off her breasts. Mom and Tadzio suffered great torment. Mom’s pain was so unbearable that she pulled her long hair out of her head, her expression completely changed, and I was afraid of her.
I ran to my daddy and saw how they were beating him. I saw them chopping off our neighbour Wasylkowska’s head on a stump. My cries were so terrifying that one of the banderivtsi ran up to me and rapidly plunged a knife a little below my throat, but I continued to scream and was so full of fear that I could not move from the place. Banderivtsi shouted the name of my father, and my father begged Ivan using his first name because he had kept coming to our dad as a friend.
When they saw me the second time, they decided to do me in, stabbing through my right hand with a knife and stabbing me twice in my left arm below the elbow. One of the banderivtsy grabbed me by the skin on my back like one grabs a cat and cut off that part of the skin which he scooped up in his hand. Later he stabbed me again twice in my shoulder blades and threw me into a huge ant nest. I probably fainted and when I awoke I was in great pain, and the ants stung me so hard that my body swelled up. The neighbour’s head, chopped off and lying next to me, was all covered with ants.
In 1943 (when I was ten), our village, Aleksandrówka went through the painful experience of being attacked several times by Ukrainian rizuns coming from our village and those situated nearby. The most tragic attack took place on 15 July around 9 p.m. Bandits armed with pitchforks, axes, clubs, knives and firearms surrounded our village and started to round up people in one place. We dispersed running to all sides. As I was running towards a wheat patch, I heard a shot and felt extreme pain in my leg. A gun bullet went right through my foot. Reeling from the gunshot I fell to the ground and began to crawl through the field of wheat to the nearest high balk, under which I dug a hole and stayed there until dawn.
Sounds of shooting and terrifying cries of tormented and murdered people were heard until morning. The pain in my leg became more severe. I was close to fainting. After a week, on Sunday or Monday – I don’t remember exactly – I heard noises coming from the direction of the village. I soon recognized the voice of a Ukrainian – Ulana Sidor, our neighbour with whom my parents had good relations and I even called her ‘auntie.’ Hungry and in great pain, I found courage to approach her, but I couldn’t stand on my wounded leg, which was badly swollen and hurt me greatly. So I crawled with difficulty to a nearby farmyard, where this ‘auntie’ was standing and, with tears in my eyes, I begged her for a piece of bread. She gave me a threatening look and, with hatred in her eyes, yelled out: “You ugly Polish mug, are you still alive?!” Then she grabbed a hoe propped up against the wall. Numb with fear, I felt no pain in my wounded leg, and began to run away. The vengeful Ukrainian running after me lost my trail. She probably thought that I was running in the direction of the road, but I zigzagged my way back around farm buildings and went back to my hideout in the field under the balk. My leg swelled up badly and it hurt me so much that I could not move. I could not see my foot at all under the swollen leg.
The only thing I had to eat there were the grains of wheat. I kept praying like my mother had taught me and more and more often thought about the approaching death.
Next to one of the dead bodies I saw two small children, who cried hysterically:
“Mommy, mommy! Wake up! We are hungry! Let’s go home!”
One of the banderivtsi saw me and shot at close range, but missed. His next shots missed too and I managed to escape. My father and brother also fled from the house. My brother was shot. A Bandera’s partisan riding a horse caught up with my father and murdered him. My mother was standing in the entryway, holding her baby in her arms. The banderivtsi fired shots through the closed door. One of the bullets hit the baby right in the chest and my mother in her arm.
My mother jumped out of the window, put the dead child on the ground and crawled into a rosebush near the house. After breaking through the door, the banderivtsi plundered the house and set fire to the buildings. When the roof fell in, the charred remains of the house fell as far away as the rosebush, so that my mother got painfully burned. This was the tragic end of our family.
My dad said to one of banderivtsi: “Fellows, what have we done to you? What do you want from us?” In response, the man hit him with a butt and started calling him names. A moment later, I heard horrifying gurgle of our neighbor who was a mute man. He got married and had normal, pretty kids. They hit them with clubs. I heard loud blows. They must have stubbed them because the victims gave out terrifying cries. Soon after they started beating up Irka and Paulinka. They were doing something very cruel to them because I heard a terrible squeak. A moment later they began to murder my father. I heard his stifled cry, moaning, wheezing and the sounds of hitting amidst shouts and laughter. I covered my ears. A moment passed and I looked through a slit in the fence and saw someone lying on the ground, bleeding. It must have been a man. Was it my father? I whispered constantly: “God, save [him], cover him so they won’t see him. Virgin Mary, help!” The cries subsided. I only heard voices of the Ukrainians– they were talking, laughing, digging a hole in the ground to bury the people they had murdered. Suddenly a woman’s terrifying cry pierced the air: “Jesus and the Holy Mary, [my] baby!” This was the voice of my older sister. She had a one-and-a-half-year old daughter. After her cries, I heard shots and then a child squeaking. Then there was only silence.
At dawn, I found my father’s dead body in the farmyard. He was lying next to a tree trunk used for chopping wood and his throat was slit. I found my mother inside the house. She had marks on her head from being hit several times with a hammer and a stab wound from a bayonet in her throat. My sister Helena had a deep wound in the head from being hit by an axe, so deep that her murderer left his axe in her head. The youngest of my brothers, Edzio – aged two – was lying in a pool of blood with his small head smashed and a knife stuck in his chest. Lying next to him was my brother Bronek, who was 16. It was his voice, begging for mercy, that I heard for the longest time at night. When I took a closer look at him, he looked like a lump of battered meat. His arms and legs were broken. It was him that the murderers tortured for the longest time.
When we sang “Gloria”, the first shots were fired at Father Bolesław Szawłowski and the people gathered in church. I was there with my sister. When I heard murderers walking around the church and saying: “O toj jeszcze żywyj” (Oh, this one is still alive), I quickly grabbed a cap soaked in warm, sticky blood and rubbed my and my sister’s face with it and we pretended to be dead. People were choking from smoke, so they tried to escape from the church. Ukrainians were shouting: “Wychadi chto żywyj,” (come out if you are alive) and then they would kill people leaving the church right at the door. They tried to blow up the church, but we only felt a terrible tremor and then there was silence.
My granddad would always try to calm me down. He would say: “I am already old, grandma as well, and Weronika is just an eleven-year-old child. So they probably won’t kill us. Why would they want to do that?” [….] Grandma’s dead body and the chopped up corpse of little Weronika were lying on the kitchen floor. Granddad was lying in the room. There was blood everywhere. We were able to recreate this bestial murder from what our neighbours told us. The bandits told grandpa to lie down on the bedroom floor and then beat him to death.
Their daughter jumped out of the window and started running away. A Ukrainian shot her in the leg. When she fell, the Ukrainian ran up to her and taking her by the leg, dragged her to grandparents’ house. They threw her over the body of grandma, her mother, and chopped her with an axe. She was crying in horror: “Don’t’ kill [us]!” But they murdered them by stabbing them in the back, chopping them into pieces. The murderer literally stuck grandpa’s head into his lungs with an axe.
When we turned grandpa over to his back to take him out into the yard and bury him and I took him by the arms, grandpa’s brain spilled out onto my chest. It was hot and his blood was still warm. Some of it still remained inside grandpa, even though the entire floor in the room was soaked in it, and stuck to the wall were pieces of bones and brain, which splashed all around when the bandit hit his head with an axe.
Only around 100 of us were left: women, children and old people. One of the women – a mother of three children – approached the armed murderers who were standing at the door and started begging them: “Look, just a few of us remained, let us live. Look at these children, they are innocent, their eyes beg for mercy, so please be merciful to them.”
Then, one of the murders spoke – naturally in chachlacki dialect [spoken in Podlasie] – (roughly):
“You, Poles. We will wipe all of you out and we will burn down your homes. No trace of you will remain.” In response to these cruel words, this woman threw a curse at the murderers’ face: “Be dammed forever. Let the blood of our innocent children fall on you, your children, grandchildren and grand grandchildren.”
The killers decided not to murder each person individually, but to do it collectively. We were gathered in classrooms and they began to throw hand grenades and fire shots from machine guns in our direction. The first shots and grenade explosions had already killed some people and wounded others. We found ourselves in the circle of an infernal abyss: the wounded were moaning, children were crying, mothers cried as if in agony, shots boomed, and finally there was smoke. The criminals of the Tryzub [in English – Trident, the national coat of arms of Ukraine] set fire to the school building. It burned like a torch on that hot August day; those who were still alive were trapped with no way out, doomed to die in flames. It is not possible to express the horror of the situation, as there are no words for it.
I somehow escaped death. I lay on the floor flattened out as much as I could. Next to me lay my neighbour Bohniaczka. I heard another boom, and a grenade blew her to pieces. Her blood and torn body gushed at me. I was in shock and I crawled towards my sister, Ania. She was dead. A bullet tore out a big hole at the entry to her skull. I went numb and lost the sense of reality. I raised my head and saw my mother on the floor, bleeding. She was still alive. I hugged her again. She was conscious, so she offered me to God and the Most Holy Virgin Mary, because only a Divine miracle could help me escape from this hell on earth. My mother could not move; a grenade tore through her feet; she bled and was burned alive. I don’t remember how I got to the other classroom. I saw shreds of human bodies and a lot of blood on the floor.
I lost all my family and wanted to die so I began choking on the smoke and thought: “I am going to swallow up smoke, suffocate and that will be the end.” But no! I choked once, twice, and nothing happened. Meanwhile the ceiling of the building caught fire, it became extremely hot. I was horrified by this fire; the burning ceiling could fall on me any time. I managed to jump out of the window at the last moment. Suddenly, a shot was fired, I fell to the ground, felt severe pain, and my forehead started bleeding. The heat coming from the burning building forced me to crawl away from it. I lay in the school garden full of dead bodies and wounded people. The seriously wounded begged the murderers to finish them off. Instead, Ukrainians tortured them passionately. Looking at this, I wanted to get up and shout. Fear nailed me, however, to the ground. I was no longer afraid of death, but of the torture I saw them inflicting on the wounded. I was smeared with my own and other people’s blood. They turned me three times and kicked me but they did not realise that I was still alive.
Next to me lay a woman – Maria Jesionek, a mother of three: two sons, one eight years, the other five years old, and an eight-month baby. She also jumped out of the burning building together with her children, just before I did. A murderer shot her and she lay dead over her strangled baby. Her eight-year-old son was also shot dead, while the five years old sat next to his mother, pulling her clothes and calling to her: “Mummy, get up! Let’s go home.” He was crying. A Ukrainian ran up to him, put a gun to his head and shot him. The kid fell on his mother’s back and, pressing his back against hers, held out his hands as if in prayer.
I saw my murdered friend, who was also an excellent pupil. His name was Prończuk. When the banderivtsi were killing his mother, he ran to rescue her. Then, the slaughterers chopped off his arms and legs and put him on a stool, where he bled to death.
Twenty boys went to Hermanówka for Easter to attend Resurrection Mass. None of them returned. They had all been killed in a cruel way. The oldest one only had his head twisted the other way. The younger ones had been tortured by Ukrainians in a more sophisticated way. They had their tongues, genitals cut off, and their skin stripped off. We were devastated.
The above accounts are taken from the books: Grzegorz Motyka’s Od rzezi wołyńskiej do akcji “Wisła” (From the Volhynian massacres to the “Vistula” Operation), Lucyna Kulińska’s Dzieci Kresów I (Children of the Borderlands I),” Marek A. Koprowski’s “Wołyń, Epopeja polskich losów, akt I i II” (Volhynia, Epic of Polish Fate, act I and II) and the website www.Genocide.pl
selected by Piotr Zychowicz
This article was published in 2016 in “Do Rzeczy” weekly.